Craig Levein. Judging by how the post-game talk was dominated by whether the Scottish FA should replace him or not when Scotland lost to Belgium in the World Cup qualifying stage, a defeat that left them bottom of their group with just two points, you would think that pointing at the manager was all that was needed to identify the reasons behind this dire situation.
Yet, for all Levein’s defects and mistakes, the fault lines of Scottish football lie much deeper than the manager’s role. For a nation that once produced world class players like Kenny Dalglish and Dennis Law, Scotland now struggles to produce players who are even remotely close to that level. There are many reasons for that, yet one of them has to be the lack of vision shown by clubs. Few have dared to be innovative; fewer still have been brave enough to build their teams around the players coming through their system.
Hamilton Academical, however, are among those few. Their youth system attracted attention for producing James McCarthy, who made his debut for The Accies before he had turned sixteen, and James McArthur whose debut came as a seventeen year old. Both players helped Hamilton reach the Premier League before being sold for significant amounts to Wigan.
The emergence of those players didn’t happen by accident but rather was the result of years of work on their youth system; a system that their Youth Academy Director Frankie McAvoy has helped build. “Our philosophy is very simple: in every sport the goal is to be the best that you can possibly be. That is what we try to teach our kids here. Other than that, our aim is to get people saying that they love to watch us play,” he says, explaining the beliefs that guide their work.
As per McAvoy’s own admittance, it is a simple philosophy yet it is also one that is full of wisdom. Indeed, an attitude of pushing everyone to improve as much as possible is one that anyone involved in youth development would be advised to adopt. If the philosophy is simple enough, the technical strategy to achieve it is a bit more complex. “There are five pillars in our coaching,” McAvoy continues. “First of all there is the match where we prepare players for competition and in an environment where they’re familiar with what they’ll have to do in a game.
“Secondly there is tactical skill where we work to have clever creative players capable of adapting to the game and the changes that might be needed. Then there is the technical pillar that relates to each position requiring its own abilities. For instance a central midfielder will need different technique than a central defender.
“Fourth is the physical aspect where we’re looking for strong and resilient players. If they struggle to handle the physical side they will commit errors so they must be ready for that.
“Finally there is psycho-social as every player is a human being and has his own worries. We have to help them and guide them so that they can handle themselves when they move up.”
Such talk of pillars might sound like fancy corporate management talk, yet the analogy is a perfect one. If getting one to be the best they possibly can be is the ultimate goal then you have to look at each area of their development in order to ensure that they get there. And, like any pillar, each area needs its attention because if one is too weak then everything would crumble.
From talking about the overall structure, McAvoy then moves to the detailed tactical plan that Hamilton Accies adopt.
“What we do is that we bring them [the kids] in to make them as technically good as we can. They start at Soccer 7s playing in a 1-4-1 formation so that they can express themselves and get a feel of the ball. When they get older we introduce the 4-3-3 which we feel is the best system to play. The full back can move forward, it is adaptable for wide players high up the pitch, the central defenders have to be comfortable with the ball and you need a striker who can be the focal point of all of this. That’s exactly what we do and what we try to get.
“We try to be as offensive as we can based on a system of keeping possession. We work on having good speed of play and players who are organised. Finishing is encouraged even from a distance. We will rarely change from those systems. Our goal is to produce football players rather than good youth teams.”
Such praise of the 4-3-3 system indicates that McAvoy is another who worships at Barcelona’s altar seeing that it is the system that they have helped popularise. Yet it is clear that his is not simply blind faith: he has adopted the system because he believes in the benefits that it brings to his sides. More importantly, he’s also analysed and adapted it so that it fits his particular situation.
Barcelona, for instance, give little value to the physical strength of their players which befits their situation as a club playing in what is largely a technical league. Hamilton, however, play in an entirely different culture so they have to ensure that their players can handle themselves physically. Indeed, that is a key element that McAvoy looks at when it comes to promoting a player from one category to the next.
“What we do for a young kid showing potential we would move them up an age group to see how they go. For instance, if they’re doing well at Under 14 we’ll move them to the U15s to see how they go. First and foremost, however, if we’re moving them up we see if they’re capable of handling the physical side of the game.”
If they’re good enough they’re old enough, then. As long as they’re also strong enough as well.
Of course, sometimes the players who are promoted can’t handle the step up. It is a delicate situation that needs to be handled carefully. “Sometimes some find it difficult. Then it is just a case of having them back in, to talk to them and helping them understand what needs to be done.”
“It is all about developing the individual,” he repeats, as if to stress just how important this is.
Most of the time, however, that development goes according to plan at which point the player progresses all the way to the first team. When it comes to recruiting players, this has obvious benefits. “A kid coming in, even if he’s very young, knows that if he works hard and shows potential then by the time that he is sixteen he’ll have a good chance of playing.”
That much is evidenced by a cursory glance at the current Hamilton first team that is filled with players just out of their teens.
These results aren’t coincidental but the work of a club who have decided to base the team around their academy graduates. It is why they’ve appointed a manager who is comfortable with that strategy. “I work on a daily basis with the first team manager,” says McAvoy “Our philosophy is similar. He’s very hand’s on, he watches them play and occasionally he comes to watch the coaching session. It is a very simple transition. Having that understanding is the most important thing.”
Inevitably when you have a young team, results aren’t immediate. So it is proving to be at the moment for Hamilton but McAvoy is confident that will change. “On a first team level it is about finding a balance. If you have a lot of young players it might be difficult initially until they find their feet. That’s what’s been happening this season. Although we’ve been playing fantastic football, the results haven’t been.” “It is about to getting the fans to understand that it’ll take a bit of time but ultimately they’ll be able to enjoy a side that plays great football.
“That doesn’t simply apply to us. Scotland have produced many good players but we haven’t been producing players capable of playing at the highest level for some time, we stopped producing world class players some time ago and we need to set that as a long term goal. Playing 4-3-3 offers them the chance to do that and to have the tactical flexibility to progress.”
By Paul Grech
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona